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Past present: Revisiting heroes

December 09, 2012

Traditionally in history conquerors are glorified as great men who made history through their accomplishments. Describing their achievements, historians eulogised them as great generals, strategists and tacticians ignoring their slaughter of tens of thousands of men and women who were victimised as these great men became victorious. When history is written by the victor’s point of view, there is no place for the vanquished.

Traditional history generally commends all conquerors but the most admired, adored, and praised is Alexander of Macedonia who earned the epithet of ‘great’.

Historians, fiction writers, artists and sculptors fascinated by his personality created a myth around him. He became a hero for his successors who were proud to emulate him.

Hannibal, one of the world’s greatest military commanders defeated the Roman army in the battle of Cannae. Known for his daring tactics, Hannibal was an admirer of Alexander. His famous crossing of the Alps in 218BC was a miraculous feat. A Roman army led by Publius Cornelius Scipio defeated the Carthagian army led by Hannibal on the plain of Zama in 202 BCE. Some years later Scipio met Hannibal at the court of the king of Syria. The two generals had a friendly conversation and Scipio asked Hannibal who he thought was the greatest general that ever lived. Hannibal answered: “Alexander the Great.” “Who was the second?” asked Scipio. “Pyrrhus,” replied Hannibal. “Who was the third?” “Myself,” answered Hannibal. “But what would you have said,” asked Scipio, “if you had conquered me?” “I should then have said,” replied Hannibal, “that I was greater than Alexander, greater than Pyrrhus, and greater than all other generals.”

Alexander’s image continued to influence Roman generals. Pompey followed in his footsteps, went east to win the third Roman war against Mithradates of Pontus on the Black Sea and in the process, added most of the modern Middle-East to the Roman Empire. After being defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled with his fleet to Egypt, not realising that the Egyptians would take Caesar's side, and was killed.

In 70BC, Caesar wept at the temple of Hercules in Gades when he saw the statue of Alexander the Great. When asked why he wept he replied, “Do you think I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.”

The Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns waged by Caesar against several Gallic tribes — historians say that 30,000 were killed and 10,000 wounded. His assassination cut his career short and consequently saved the lives of people he would otherwise have ravaged. Alexander’s reputation and fame did not remain confined to the West.

Alauddin Khilji after consolidating his position, planned to conquer the world. But he was advised to first conquer India for which he was known as Sikander-e-sani. In Europe, Napoleon admired Alexander the Great and created a new system in Europe along the lines of the ancient Macedonian Empire.

It is time we change the way we write history and instead of attributing greatness to conquerors, we must condemn them.

Greatness should be attributed to philosophers, writers, and scholars who created awareness by their ideas and thoughts.

Instead of Alexander, Aristotle should be emulated as a hero. The new concept of history writing will perhaps discourage ambitious generals who wish to control  political affairs of the state and achieve greatness in history.